How many news stories have we read recently about the imminent disappearance of the glaciers of Kilimanjaro? This latest spasm of "envirodoom" stems from Ohio State University glaciologist Lonnie Thompson's latest paper in Science, in which he predicts the end to the glaciers by 2020 or so, based upon current trends. The culprit? Global warming, of course, or so the doomsayers would have us believe.
It's apparently all a result of global warming caused by man's pernicious economic activity. At least that's what Ohio State said in its press release, citing Thompson's "prediction that these unique bodies of ice will disappear in the next two decades, the victims of global warming." That was repeated in dozens of horrifying news stories that appeared beginning on Oct. 17, ranging from ABC to the Yahoo Daily News.
One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of modern journalism is the absolute lack of critical insight tendered towards environmental scares. A cursory inspection of Thompson's own data shows that Kilimanjaro's glaciers would be dying even if Homo sapiens were still just hanging around the trees of the Rift Valley, a few hundred miles to the West.
Thompson cited five surveys of Kilimanjaro, from 1912, 1953, 1976, 1989 and 2000. From 1912 to 1953, global temperature rose 0.74ºF. Most scientists think this warming had mainly to do with the sun, and little from human activity, as the bulk of human greenhouse gas emissions took place in the second half of the last century, not the first.
Kilimanjaro's glaciers lost 45 percent of their real extent in that era of non-human warming. If the glaciers had continued on their merry way at the pace established in that period, they would be gone by now.
But they're still here. From 1953 through 1976, another 21 percent of the original area was uncovered. This was during a period of global cooling-yes, cooling--of 0.13ºF. Ohio State could have accurately written the following hype at that time: "Kilimanjaro's glaciers will completely disappear by 2015 if this cooling trend continues".
It is painfully obvious that global temperatures and the behavior of Kilimanjaro's glaciers are pretty independent, at least on the timescale of decades. Instead, local climate should be more important. Unfortunately, analyses of the local East African records show little regional cohesion between nearby thermometers, which argues more that the data are bad than it does for any local cooling or warming.
Since 1976, another 12 percent of the original mass disappeared, the slowest rate of decline since 1912. While the local temperature measurements are clearly questionable, in 1979 satellite monitoring began. All scientists-even the most ardent global warming apocalyptics-acknowledge that the satellite is very good at measuring temperatures at the altitude of Kilimanjaro's glaciers-about 19,000 feet. In fact, it probably measures temperatures at that altitude better than it does at sea level.
Around Kilimanjaro, satellite data show a cooling of 0.40ºF since 1979, which is exactly the same as the global warming rate between 1912 and 1953 (0.17ºF per decade). Still, Kilimanjaro's glaciers continued to shrink.
Thompson noted that the period from 11,000 to 4,000 years ago was warmer in Africa than it is today, and yet Kilimanjaro was glaciated because it was also wetter than it is today. Some estimates place today's precipitation at only one-half of what it was during the warm period. Obviously, precipitation--not temperature--is key to the glaciation of Kilimanjaro.
Did people make it stop snowing? Precipitation in East Africa is highly correlated with El Nino activity in the tropical Pacific Ocean. During the last big one, 1997-98, how many stories-written by the same journalists and university press offices-promulgated the very shaky story that El Ninos are becoming more frequent because of global warming?
If people are causing the warming, and warming is causing more El Ninos, then it should be snowing more and more and more on Kilimanjaro-more than it did when it was even warmer, thousands of years ago.
While it's easy to think that global warming and Kilimanjaro are related, anyone with the smallest computer could have checked to see if this is true, simply by examining history. Google.com reveals 369,000 hits under "global temperature histories." For the more arcane satellite record, which is created by an orbiting instrument known as a microwave sounding unit (MSU), type in "MSU temperature history," and you'll get a mere 18,300 responses.
Remember two years ago when the New York Times had to retract a story about melting of the polar ice cap? In that case, the facts were a similarly few mouse-clicks away. Kilimanjaro turns out to be just another snow job, precipitated by a journalistic community that has lost its desire for critical factual investigation when it comes to our globe's environment.